Saving the traditional family

We don’t yet know the Supreme Court decisions on California’s Prop 8 and DOMA, but it appears the general consensus is correct on this subject: No matter what the Court does, same-sex marriage is coming to America. The tide of public opinion is moving so fast in that direction that nothing can stop it.

Here’s my own personal opinion: I had hoped that civil rights could be guaranteed for non-traditional families without changing the definition of marriage. I believe gay rights activists would have been open to that kind of solution early on, and it could have avoided some of the hard feelings between the two camps. But the march of history has eliminated it as a subject for negotiation. News reports this week indicate Orrin Hatch may be finally supporting the concept of civil unions, but he’s a little late to the party. The horse is out of the barn.

So, for those of us who are concerned about the health of the traditional family, what do we do now? To hear some talk, the apparent victory of same-sex marriage proponents is a sign of the Apocalypse; the Messiah will surely come and destroy the world for its wickedness. All there is left is to barricade ourselves in our homes and wait for the fire and brimstone to start falling.

I am rather of the same mindset as Gordon B. Hinckley in his book “Standing for Something”: I am an optimist. I think we misread the teachings of the Brethren if we think that gay marriage is the only threat to traditional families, or even the worst threat. I think you will hear that subject discussed much more in your average High Priest group meeting than in General Conference. You will hear many more sermons on pornography, tender love and care to spouses and children, keeping debt levels manageable, boring old-fashioned heterosexual adultery, the importance of education and marketable skills etc. For those who truly care about the family, there is much that can be done – and should be done.

Speaking of President Hinckley, one of the most prophetic sermons given on the family was his October 2006 address in the Priesthood session. Here is a memorable quote:

“I call your attention to another matter that gives me great concern. In revelation the Lord has mandated that this people get all the education they can. He has been very clear about this. But there is a troubling trend taking place. Elder Rolfe Kerr, Commissioner of Church Education, advises me that in the United States nearly 73 percent of young women graduate from high school, compared to 65 percent of young men. Young men are more likely to drop out of school than young women.

“Approximately 61 percent of young men enroll in college immediately following high school, compared to 72 percent for young women.

“In 1950, 70 percent of those enrolled in college were males, and 30 percent were females; by 2010 projections estimate 40 percent will be males, and 60 percent will be females.

“Women have earned more bachelor’s degrees than men every year since 1982 and more master’s degrees since 1986.

“It is plainly evident from these statistics that young women are exceeding young men in pursuing educational programs.”

This problem of young men in America falling behind in achieving marketable skills, so prophetically proclaimed in President Hinckley’s talk, is getting a lot of attention among academics and political leaders recently. In his recent article “Straight Marriage Is The Real Issue”, respected conservative commentator David Frum took on this subject of young men being left out of the nation’s economy. One quote from sociologist Michael Greenstone is thought provoking: “"I think the greatest, most astonishing fact that I am aware of in social science right now is that women have been able to hear the labor market screaming out 'You need more education' and have been able to respond to that, and men have not. And it's very, very scary for economists because people should be responding to price signals. And men are not. It's a fact in need of an explanation."

Frum goes on to say, “As men (on average) finish less education, as male wages (on average) decline, men become less attractive as marital partners. As Harvard's Christopher Jencks -- a left-leaning academic, it should be stressed -- said: ‘Single-parent families tend to emerge in places where the men already are a mess…. But how do we make men without a college education less of a mess? This is the master problem of American society’. (There is) a widening divergence between the family patterns of the college-educated top one-third, where family life is increasingly stable, and those of the non-college-educated bottom two-thirds, where family life is increasingly disrupted. It's the family life of the bottom two-thirds that is the family policy challenge of the 21st century. The debate over same-sex marriage is yesteryear's issue. It's settled, whether the Supreme Court knows it or not. But how to ensure that the next generation of American children enjoys the more equal chance and the wider opportunities from a more universal commitment to marriage -- that debate needs to begin.”

(Frum also makes an interesting point in his piece: In pushing for the right to make their relationships more legally binding, gay rights activists are asking for less freedom for themselves, not more. Whether we agree with gay marriage or not, the debate should serve as a call for us heterosexuals that we should take our own marriage covenants more seriously.)

Stop and think for a moment: For all of human history until just a few decades ago, the vast majority of men provided for their families by “the sweat of their brow”; in other words, through manual labor. Not only that; until a century ago, the vast majority of that manual labor was farming. Males of the human species have millennia of social and genetic conditioning that leads the majority of them to manual work. It has always been a tiny minority of men who have worked with their minds instead of their muscles. However, in a period of time equal to the blink of an eye in human history, that paradigm was violently turned on its head. Modern technology and global capitalism have largely eliminated the means by which the vast majority of men historically provided for their families.

Many things threaten traditional marriage and families in our society. But maybe the most important thing we can do to save the family hinges on this question: How can we provide opportunities for men who don’t have the talent or inclination to be doctors, scientists or Wall Street bankers to contribute to our economy, and to be sufficiently compensated for their contributions to allow them to support a family? The Church’s inspired Perpetual Education Fund is one model for solving this problem. We also shouldn’t be shy about looking elsewhere in the world for examples. The northern European countries have actually been successful in reversing this trend the last decade. The result should be shocking to Americans: A teenage girl has a greater probability of living with her biological father in Sweden than in the United States. I don’t know about you, but I find that fact extremely embarrassing. I certainly don’t believe we should copy their policies verbatim, but there seems to be something to learn here. Since this new world, where manual labor has little economic value, is so revolutionary, by definition old ideologies will not be up to the challenge.

Unless we find a practical solution to this question, those well-known alarming statistics on the health of the traditional family in America will continue.

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